SI Vault
 
THE BIG Z AND HIS MISFIRING PISTONS
Myron Cope
December 18, 1967
Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 18, 1967

The Big Z And His Misfiring Pistons

Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

The next day Kerbawy returned to Zollner's suite and handed him a typewritten list of preposterous demands. He wanted $15,000 annual salary, plus a $3,000 annual bonus, to run the ball club. He also wanted 20% of the club's gross profits before taxes. He would need an expense account and an auto. Additionally he wanted the title of vice-president of industrial relations for the Zollner Corporation, at $25,000 per year. The contract would run 19 years, taking Kerbawy to age 65, and pay him a minimum of $819,000 in cash. Then he would get $400 monthly retirement pay.

"I accept every point," Zollner said.

Kerbawy remembers turning to the window and muttering, "Oh, hell."

Calling a press conference, Zollner predicted that Kerbawy's new job "should be the only position he will need the rest of his life." Events proved this prediction perfectly accurate—indeed, from where Zollner sits, sickeningly accurate.

Midway into Kerbawy's third season, Zollner received reports that his general manager had drifted afield and had involved himself in a proxy fight between two factions of Lion stockholders. The rub was that Kerbawy reportedly was soliciting proxies in opposition to a faction that included William Clay Ford, brother of Henry Ford II, who was buying lots of Zollner pistons. Zollner ordered Kerbawy to take a six-month leave of absence, with pay. In the end, Kerbawy collected his pay for nine months, then promptly sued Zollner for impeaching-his reputation. After asking $5.5 million, he settled out of court some three years later for $255,000, 40% of it tax-free, and today says that his 2� seasons as Piston general manager were worth $600,000 to him. Once again Zollner had been a help to mankind.

In the meantime he tried a new tack with the Pistons. He always had retained a veto over player trades and draft selections, but in 1963 he invested complete authority in a new coach, Charlie Wolf. "We got a break in being able to steal Charlie away from the Royals," Zollner told the press. Actually the Royals had left the house unattended with the windows wide open; apparently disenchanted with Wolf, they had not even bothered to take him to the draft meeting. At any rate, Zollner announced, "He's the kind of take-charge guy I've been looking for."

Wolf took charge with gusto. He led the players in calisthenics and urged them to climb stairways to second-level hotel lobbies instead of using escalators. He enforced curfews with the tenacity of a headmistress of a girls' college. The Pistons won 23 games, lost 57 and finished a well-disciplined last.

Wolf moved quickly to rebuild. The Pistons desperately needed a big man, and they were to get first pick in the draft. Head Scout Earl Lloyd recommended 6'10" Willis Reed, an unheralded prospect from Grambling, or, if not him, 6'9" Lucius Jackson. No, said Wolf. He personally had scouted the U.S. Olympic tryouts and had become infatuated with flashy Joe Caldwell, 6'5". "We felt we needed someone who was exciting," Wolf explains. He drafted Caldwell (who, after little more than one exciting season as a Piston bench warmer, was traded to St. Louis for small change), while superfind Reed went to New York and strongman Jackson to Philadelphia.

The rebuilt '64-'65 Pistons lurched to two victories in their first 11 games, whereupon Zollner replaced his take-charge guy with a 24-year-old player, Dave DeBusschere, then only two years out of Detroit University. A handsome, dimpled bachelor, DeBusschere was the only head coach in major sports who could dance the jerk and the monkey. He could also throw a baseball well enough to have appeared in 36 games as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. What he could not do was lead the Pistons into a playoff, and after three seasons he asked to be relieved as coach. His assistant, Donnis Butcher, was given the job.

Butcher started this season in an awkward spot. Paul Seymour, the former Baltimore coach, was named as his assistant, and it was generally assumed that as soon as the Pistons went bad—and that figured to be very soon—Seymour would take over. Now, with the team in third place after 20 games, ahead of the New York Knicks and Cincinnati Royals, Butcher's job seems secure, at least for the moment.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4